By Tim Kalinowski, Staff Writer
The history of civilization is the history of beer. This may not even be too great of an overstatement. Humanity has poured more knowledge, resources and technological innovation into perfecting the brewing process over the centuries than we have poured into aeronautics, space exploration or digital communication. The science of brewing is precise; however the art of it remains elusive to those who pursue the sublime alchemy of transforming barley, hops and water into beer.
As more people take up the quest of perfecting the beermaking art, this has led to heightened awareness of the burgeoning craft brewing industry. And Alberta is well poised to take advantage, being one of world leaders in the production of malting barley. However, another crop needed to make beer has been long neglected in the province: Hops.
Dr. Elliott Currie, Associate Professor at the College of Business & Economics at Guelph University, says it is somewhat baffling as to why southern Alberta, especially, with its ideal hops growing climate, has not been quicker to jump on board.
“It seems to do best in a milder climate, and in some cases drier,” explains Currie. “So in a place like Taber, you’d probably get a decent hop crop. It might be a little hotter in the day than other growing areas, but I don’t think you’d have a problem because there is many different varieties to grow.
“And another nice thing is each hop plant would have a particular flavour of that particular region. So it’s going to taste different. You could have a Taber hop, or a Lethbridge hop; so imagine every town could have its own beer because it takes on the flavour of that particular environment.”
The main hops growing regions in the world remain Germany, the west coast of the United States, China and the Czech Republic. Canada is only a minor player, but Currie hopes to see that change because the economics of the industry make sense in a Canadian context, including in currently non-hops growing regions like southern Alberta.
“You’ve already got barley aced,” says Currie, referring to this part of the province. “So why not in the valleys, or somewhere not quite as appropriate for growing other crops, put in a hop yard? Because you don’t need many acres, five or ten acres and you’d have it.”
However, admits Currie, it would also mean Alberta farmers would have to think about agriculture a different way. Hops has more in common with grape growing than it does with other traditional prairie crops. The initial cost input would be higher than other crops as well, he says.
“It’s a different kind of farming. You have to change your style. You don’t need much land, but you need a fair amount of mechanization. Your initial investment is much more expensive than in other kinds of farming. But the idea is to create a hop yard with vines that are going to produce for the next 30 or 40 years.
“There’s also a bit of an art to it,” he continues. “Here you are managing a sort of relationship with the plant to come up with something. And on the marketing side, I always recommend to farmers to go out and get a close relationship with maybe one, two or three breweries, and sell just to them. If you have that relationship I know several small hop yards in Ontario who will tell you after the first year you don’t need to do any more marketing because one brewery buys the entire crop.”
Thinking about farming differently in this case, says Currie, also means thinking vertically rather than horizontally.
“You need to use telephone poles because the (hop vines) will grow up to eight metres in a year. You put in the telephone poles, and you string cable between them and then lines from the ground between each telephone pole up to each cable from top to top. So you end up with vines growing up on an angle, and then you cut them back each year.”
Currie says he is such a big booster of the hop industry in Canada because he sees the potential, especially with more craft breweries looking for locally sourced crops to use in their operations.
“The craft brewery industry in the States is growing at over 10 per cent a year, and they are becoming a huge pain in the big company’s sides because they are taking their market share,” states Currie. “I believe the brewmasters will talk to the hops horticulturists and they will have a meeting of minds, and they are going to see huge opportunities.”
He also does not see peoples’ passion for beer drinking going away anytime soon, with demand for the product growing strongly in China and other emerging economies. In a more local context, consumers are constantly on the lookout for new beer tasting experiences, and are thrilled to discover new craft brews right in their own backyard. He includes himself among that number.
“I do enjoy the occasional beer,” he admits with a laugh. “But more importantly, I see (hop growing) as an opportunity for people with small land (bases) for farming to get involved with growing something worth tens of millions of dollars every year.”